Saturday, December 11, 2010

Civil Society Acknowledgement

"Freedom first.” "Baghdad will not be Kandahar.” “We don't need a Khomeini state or a Taliban state in Iraq.”

Such was the message written on signs carried by Iraqi intellectuals protesting an order closing social clubs serving alcohol in Baghdad. This is the sort of thing architects of the Iraq war were having wet dreams about on the eve of invasion – Iraqi citizens (writers and poets no less!) marching in the streets demanding basic freedoms of association and speech. But it has gone all but uncovered by the western press and all but unmentioned by western diplomats. That's a real missed opportunity.

There have been some nasty little attacks on free thought, cultural institutions, and basic liberties in Iraq over the past few weeks. The Baghdad Provincial Council is enforcing a law closing down all venues in the city being used as night clubs (there’s some confusion on the scope of the law in the English language press. Would that I read Arabic), which is troubling in and of itself. But even more worrisome is that the police have targeted the Iraqi Writers Union social club as well – a sort of incubator for intellectual life in Baghdad where writers gather to smoke shisha, talk, and have a drink or two – and strong-armed its owner into signing a closure notice listing it as a night club. What’s more, the Education Ministry recently banned theater and music classes in Baghdad’s Fine Arts Institute, leaving one to wonder why they bother having a Fine Arts Institute in the first place. This is scary stuff.

Dozens of remarkably audacious writers and poets took to the streets in protest, calling for Prime Minister Maliki to intervene directly to reverse the closure order. It’s an incredibly brave stand on their part, and an example of how civil society is supposed to work to hold states accountable. They organized. They voiced peaceful opposition. They spurred debate. They made reasonable demands of their government. Their bravery should be acknowledged.

Critically, the response was 100% Iraqi organized. Western organizations had absolutely nothing to do with it, and that’s a good thing. This is the kind of stuff that’s sorely lacking in Iraq, and that I hope will take root and put aid and development workers like myself right out of business in this country. But the international community has a real opportunity to spotlight these sorts of peaceful protests, and lend support just by acknowledging that they're taking place. Imagine the encouragement these courageous people would take from just a few lines of acknowledgment from President Obama, Secretary Clinton, or Ambassador Jeffrey? We pour millions and millions of dollars into “civil society development” programming every year. A few well placed words would be free.

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